Jared Kushner is betting the house on a risky strategy Middle East experts worry will derail any future Israeli-Palestinian peace deal – as well as what remains of the powerful son-in-law’s shrinking West Wing portfolio.
He privately encouraged Trump’s announcement Wednesday that “Jerusalem is Israel’s capital,” which was seen by some experts in the region as a setback for peace efforts led by Kushner and his small team. The group has made dozens of trips to the region and spent hours on listening tours, working to gain the trust of the Palestinians and the broader Arab world.
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“It is very, very hard to imagine how that peace effort can be continued,” said Ghaith al-Omari, who served as an adviser to the Palestinian Authority’s negotiating team from 1999 to 2002. “All the Arab leaders who have been cultivating relations with the new administration will be forced to come out very strongly against this.”
But a person close to Kushner said he was forceful in his backing of the move. “Encouraging would be an understatement,” the person said. “It was him.”
Kushner has been hemmed in since the arrival of chief of staff John Kelly, losing his free-floating “first among equals” status in the White House, while wrestling with increased scrutiny from special counsel Robert Mueller. These days, close associates said, Kushner is primarily driven by one goal: to prove himself by delivering a Middle East peace deal many skeptics doubt he can close.
He is banking on the hope that the opposition is just a facade — and that privately, after a “cooling off” period, Arab allies will continue to work with him on a peace plan he still expects to announce at some point in the early months of 2018.
He also sees the decision, people familiar with his thinking said, as one of the most significant moves by the Trump administration – something that will have repercussions on the region for years to come.
“Despite any public remarks in the Arab world,” said a senior White House official, “I think everyone recognizes that without the United States involvement, the peace deal is not getting done.”
A second White House official also dismissed potential violent outbursts in reaction to the announcement as nothing more than a short-term, knee-jerk reaction that will not carry long-term repercussions. “We understand that there will be a lot of predictable template reactions today,” the official said. “We are confident enough about getting a peace deal done in the future and think all parties understand the central role that the United States plays in that process.”
For Kushner, the Jerusalem issue also provided a chance to reassert some of his lost authority in the White House. Privately, he told the president he backed the move, even as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis voice their opposition, according to multiple officials and outside advisers involved with the administration’s Middle East plans.
But Kushner’s internal backing of the Jerusalem deal – contradicting advice of senior cabinet secretaries – puts him on the line once again with high-risk political advice. Kushner is still closely associated with his support, last May, of Trump’s decision to fire his FBI Director James Comey – which led to the appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller and was widely seen as the biggest unforced error of Trump’s first year in office.
“Urging Trump to fire Comey may go down in history as the dumbest piece of political advice ever offered,” said Dan Pfeiffer, a former adviser to President Barack Obama. (Kushner’s attorney, Abbe Lowell, has said that his client supported the president’s decision after it was made.)
On the Jerusalem issue, a close confidante of Kushner’s said, the stakes may not be as high for the trajectory of Trump’s presidency, overall. But they’re high for Kushner. “If he’s right, he will be a hero of heroes,” the Kushner ally said. “He end-ran Tillerson again. If he’s wrong, he’s doomed.”
But Kushner’s view was not a hard sell for a president eager to claim victory on a campaign promise, while winning praise from big pro-Israel donors like Sheldon Adelson. Trump first promised he would recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital when he delivered a campaign speech – written with heavy input from Kushner – in front of the hard-line pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC on March 21, 2016.
White House officials said the decision was ultimately settled solely by the president, after being briefed on all of his options by many advisers. And while Kushner was an important part of the process, he was one voice among many.
Trump’s Jerusalem announcement Wednesday collected quick accolades from powerful Jewish interests at home. The Adelson-funded Republican Jewish Congress, for example, said it planned to run a full-page ad in the New York Times on Thursday, under the banner headline: “President Trump: You Promised. You Delivered.”
From Kushner’s perspective, according to people familiar with his thinking, the hope was that the announcement would fulfill a long-standing promise but do little damage to the relationships he has forged with players in the Middle East, like the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammad bin Salman, widely referred to as “MBS.”
“I think [Trump] and Jared figure that after all the posturing and a few days of riots, things go back to normal when it comes to the negotiations,” said a person close to the administration.
Kushner also feels like he has the private backing of major players in the region. The close confidant who speaks to Kushner regularly said: “It’’s a bold, bold move. Jared and MBS are locked at the hip, and they are saying, 120 years of this hasn’t worked. Let’s take it in our hands.”
Publicly, however, the Saudi King Salman — Mohammad bin Salman’s father — called the Jerusalem embassy move “a dangerous step.”
There were other small and immediate setbacks Wednesday to the careful outreach to the Arab world that Kushner and his lead Middle East envoy have been orchestrating over the past ten months. The envoy, Jason Greenblatt, had been planning to spend Wednesday evening at a Christmas party at the Palestine Liberation Organization’s delegation in Washington, a White House official said. But that party was canceled after the president’s announcement – a sign that its leaders did not want to be seen hosting members of the Trump administration in the wake of the Jerusalem announcement.
Kushner and Greenblatt, who has traveled to the region more than 10 times, have no pending trips planned, a spokesman said. Vice President Mike Pence is still scheduled to visit Israel and Egypt in late December.
For now, it’s an open question how long the “cooling period” might be, and even White House officials conceded they cannot predict the reaction from the Arab world and are watching carefully.
“I think they’re going to have to take a knee for a little while and figure out what they’re doing next,” said Ilan Goldenberg, a former State Department official under John Kerry. “The question is, when can they be seen in public with any Arab leader?”
But the senior White House official said the timeline for a peace plan has not changed, and that “the decision does not in any way hamper our ability to get a peace agreement completed. We’re going to keep our heads down and keep working through it. When this cooling off period is over, we’ll be ready.”
Some observers said Kushner may benefit from even lower expectations.
“It makes the marginal movement for actors [like bin-Salman and King Abdullah of Jordan] much, much narrower,” said al-Omari. “The relation with the United States is still fundamental, it’s all about Iran, and no one will rush that quickly to dismiss Kushner. But when it comes to peace in particular, most will be extremely skeptical.”